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TV Review: Russian Doll Finds Emotional Resonance in Its Groundhog’s Day Premise

on February 01, 2019, 3:13pm

The Pitch: Birthdays are especially good catalysts for midlife crises. On Russian Doll, Netflix’s new eight-episode comedic thrill co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, our birthday girl is Nadia (Lyonne), a NYC-based game designer with a bit of a hard shell. Nadia’s turning 36, a significant milestone for reasons that will later become obvious. Yes, 36 is a bit early for a midlife crisis; her friends point this out, to which Nadia quips, “I mean I smoke, what, two packs a day? I have the internal organs of a man twice my age. If I make it to my low 70s, I’ll be shocked”). And that tells you about everything you need to know about Nadia: Burning the candles at both ends to ignore your problems can work beautifully in your 20s, but by your 30s, a feeling of emptiness is bound to creep in.

Nadia’s immediate problem isn’t existential dread, however. It’s that the poor girl keeps dying over and over, like a one-woman Final Destination. Each time she dies (which is typically within 24 hours of the last death), she returns to the same birthday party, with the same friends and the same cocaine-laced joint. It’d be tempting to call it one hell of a trip, if it wasn’t so frustrating and, eventually, horrifying.

The Definition of Insanity…: …is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result. It’s this metaphor that’s at the heart of Russian Doll. The phrase isn’t a metaphor, but Nadia’s constant deaths certainly are. Let’s unpack that. So because I’m entirely judgmental, one of my initial thoughts on the first episode of Russian Doll was “Wait, 36-year-olds still party like this?” I’m 33, and definitely fell asleep at 10 p.m. last night. But Nadia’s pal Max (Greta Lee) has orchestrated one hell of a banger. Unfortunately, food and decor aside, the guest list leaves a little something to be desired: splattered across the dimly lit rooms, you’ll find college humanities professors going on about Updike, and older guys looking to cheat on their wives with much younger women.

But this is kind of the point of Russian Doll: the way we, as humans, cling to the things (drugs, partying, sex, booze) that once made us forget our problems, even when they don’t make that much sense anymore. In the same way, Nadia keeps insta-dying over and over because she’s incapable, at least at first, to learn from past escapes (she finally does stop taking the stairs and opts for Max’s fire escape instead, which bodes well for keeping her neck intact). It’s only when Nadia starts to self-reflect, and gets a little help from a friend, that she’s able to start seeing different results. And that’s the beauty of Russian Doll. For people who like a story with strong symbolism that takes a while to unfold (think A Ghost Story, the payoffs will abound.

A Slow-Burn of a Thriller?: While the early reviews for the show have been overwhelmingly positive, no one’s really being honest about how viewers might lose interest unless they make it to the end of episode three. While Nadia’s constant death and rebirth makes sense on a metaphorical level, the snappy humor of Poehler et. al is intermittent, and three episodes of watching Nadia get hit by cars and explode in house fires might be at least one too many.

We’re supposedly in the midst of the Great Return to the 30-Minute Format, but it’s hard not to fear that in this case, the format might work against Russian Doll’s interests. With a movie like A Ghost Story, it doesn’t matter if Rooney Mara spends 15 minutes eating a pie in silence, because the viewers are stuck firmly in their seats for 90 minutes. But in the case of a Netflix show, each time the credits roll, it’s an invitation to stop watching. Russian Doll gambles on the fact that you’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. The early episodes are far from pointless — second viewings will reveal plentiful hints about the show’s world and message — but it’s hard at first to differentiate between a red herring (and there are quite a few) and something you should actually be paying attention to. Get to episode four before deciding whether to quit. It’s two hours in total, you can do it.

The Genre-Bending is Real: Russian Doll is a fantastic mix of the 1993 comedy classic Groundhog Day and Netflix’s other dimension-bender Stranger Things, with horror elements reminiscent of The Shining. Hearing red-haired Nadia nerd out about bugs in the code and a fourth dimension of time makes me think of a grown-up Max (from Stranger Things). It’d be a crime to give Russian Doll’s twists and turns away, but let’s just say that a lot of the fun of the show is figuring out why things are happening. Why are mirrors disappearing? More pressingly, why are people disappearing? Why does a tea kettle cause Nadia to self-combust in one rendition of her existence, and not in a subsequent one? What are the variables Nadia needs to understand to get out of this endless loop, and what do these variables say about what it means to be human? As we get more investing in Nadia’s character, her deaths become less Final Destination absurdist and more poignantly tragic. The evolution is well worth the investment.

The Verdict: For the patient viewer, Russian Doll offers a potential immediate cult favorite. It offers philosophy, humor, a strong cast, and sci-fi-esque twists and turns that feel intentional rather than hokey. It’s tempting to also forecast this as a springboard for co-creator/writer/actor Natasha Lyonne’s career, as she’s able to reach a range here not available in her past life as a teen-comedy star and only occasionally possible in the ensemble cast of Orange is the New Black. Both deeply satisfying and thoughtful, Russian Doll is an obvious binge option for February.

Where’s It Playing? Russian Doll‘s first season premieres in full on Netflix on February 1st.

Trailer:

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